King Husein: On the back of a simple concept, Husein has built a business that has transformed an industry
King Husein has built Madera, Calif.- based Span Construction and Engineering into the country’s largest metal building construction company by establishing it on a basic concept: Keep your commitments at any cost. “There have been times we have swallowed a lot of money to keep our commitment,” the Chairman and CEO says. For more than 20 years, Span has been rated the largest metal building contracting company in the country. In 2013, it bought 21,902 tons of steel.
Getting to Span
You don’t build a colossus overnight, and for the 68-year-old Husein that is certainly true. He arrived in the United States in 1969 to pursue a master’s degree in engineering. Originally, he was slated to attend Rice University, Houston, but based on the recommendation of a friend, he diverted to Provo, Utah and enrolled at Brigham Young University.
Upon receiving his degree, Husein moved to Boston and was hired by Priggen Steel Buildings, a regional builder affiliated with Varco Pruden Buildings (VP). He started as an engineer, and that hire began a lifelong association with metal building systems and VP.
Boston, though, was not a conducive climate for Husein. “My wife was from out west, and I really didn’t care for the New England Winter and the humidity. With the help of VP, which has a plant in California, he made the move to a good-sized builder in Fresno, Calif. in 1977, where he was responsible for engineering and construction. But working for another builder made him restless. “When I worked in Massachusetts and California,” Husein says, “I started developing principles in my mind. I would say quite often, ‘if I was running this company I would do this differently. How to take care of clients, how to design buildings, how to develop relationships with a supplier and treat them as a partner.'”
“The image of the metal building industry has changed and become an acceptable and important segment of the construction industry. The adaptability, flexibility and efficiency of metal building systems in so many different applications- from large clear spans to small storage buildings to huge distribution centers, airplane hangars, shopping centers, multistory commercial buildings, car dealerships and manufacturing plants-is driving its acceptance.” – King Husein
He fielded many offers, but VP offered help to get him started in his own business, and a local home builder, Dave Berry of Berry Construction, provided office space, licensing, insurance and other tangibles with the agreement that after five years, Husein would buy him out. So, Span Construction and Engineering began in a cleared-out closet of the home building company.
“VP was right there,” says Husein. “Without its confidence and trust, if it hadn’t pushed me, I didn’t want to take the risk.”
That first day, Husein took a sticky note and wrote “1 Million” on it, figuring if he bought $250,000 to $300,000 worth of steel from VP it would add up to $1 million in construction. At the end of the year, he had actually purchased one million dollars of steel from VP.
At the end of the five years, Berry and Husein continued the relationship, forging a partnership so based on trust that they each would sign documents offered by the other without question. One day at lunch, Berry passed a document across the table, and told Husein to sign, which he did. “I then asked him what I’m signing, and he said, ‘King, I’m tired of being a leach on you. I cannot take your money anymore.'” The document was the dissolution of the partner agreement. “He was magnanimous, generous, more than a fair partner,” Husein says.
The Costco Story
In 1988, Husein landed a meeting with Doug Mulvanny, MulvannyG2 Architects, Seattle, which was responsible for a Rite Aid distribution center project in Northern California and also happened to be the firm that handled Costco. During the lunch, “He asked me a question that was a turning point,” Husein says. The building is 500,000 square feet and 52 feet high. “He asked me how would I devise a bracing without any interior bracing that would restrict the movements inside. I said I would provide straps on top of the structure that would take all the forces outside to the walls. His eyes lit and he ended up putting us on the bidding list. That was a game changer.”
When Husein approached Mulvanny about doing Costco buildings, he was told that Costco used glulam beams, not steel. But opportunity came in October 1989 when Mulvanny called and asked if Husein had problems putting up steel in winter time. That landed Span its first Costco project in Redding, Calif. “Once we did that project, Doug took the executive vice president of Costco and showed him how a standing seam roof system worked. On the way down from the roof, the executive vice president said, ‘Mulvanny, let’s switch all our building to steel.'”
As of December 2013, Span has built 75 million square feet for Costco and by the end of 2014 will hit 80 million. During those 24 years, the construction cycle has been reduced from 180 days to 110 days on buildings with greater scope.
A company founded on the idea of keeping commitments can find itself driven in new ways that include innovative thinking. In two particular areas, Span has developed products that differentiate it in the market place and show its commitment to customers and employees.
Span patented a roof curb system that it manufacturers in its shop and is made from stainless steel or aluminum. The company doesn’t sell to anyone else because the cost of shipping would be prohibitive, but it is willing to pay a few extra thousand to ship the curbs with the building. The roof problems declined significantly.
Husein also developed a suspension safety net system called SkyWeb. Butler Manufacturing was working on the same kind of safety solution, and the two came to an agreement that allowed both to succeed because it would help save lives. Span sells about 25 million square feet of SkyWeb every year.